Rest easy, Gen. Washington. It’s simply not true that the federal government callously demoted your birthday observance to the bland, non-specific Presidents Day we celebrate today (though some years, it does coincide with your birthday).
Still, we Americans could do more to commemorate our first - and according to many historians - our greatest president.
George Washington’s birthday is still recognized by the federal government on the third Monday of February. Various states, including Texas, do recognize the alternative Presidents Day.
That’s a shame, because a compelling case can be made that George Washington truly was the father of our country. He was the man who, more than any other, made possible our republican form of government.
James Flexner, considered by many to be George Washington’s best biographer, called him “the indispensable man of the American Founding.”
“Without Washington, America would never have won our War of Independence,” observes Matthew Spalding, an American studies authority at the Heritage Foundation.
Washington’s strategy was unheard of at the time - simply not to lose. He knew the tired and overstretched British forces could eventually be defeated, but not by a glorious European-style battle of lines-of-force against lines-of-force. Washington simply didn’t have the resources to win in that manner. So he did the next best thing - he didn’t lose. And that proved to be enough.
“He (also) played the central role in the Constitutional Convention and, as the first president, set the precedents that define what it means to be a constitutional executive: strong and energetic, aware of the limits of authority but guarding the prerogatives of office,” Spalding contends.
Washington’s birthday was celebrated as early as 1778, but Congress did not officially recognize it as a national holiday until 1870.
At no time did Congress ever change Washington’s birthday to Presidents Day. The Monday Holiday Law in 1968, which established the federal calendar, kept Washington’s Birthday, as it’s kept to this day.
Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, on the other hand, was never a federal holiday. Presidents Day only emerged as an alternative in an effort to recognize Lincoln and other presidents in various states.
A popular misconception is that Washington and Lincoln were bumped from the calendar to make room for Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. That’s also false. King’s holiday, in January, wasn’t observed until 1986 (under a Republican president).
That doesn’t prevent even some government agencies from perpetrating the myth that Washington was demoted; the holiday is referred to as Presidents Day (not the correct Washington’s Birthday) on numerous federal websites. The U.S. Postal Service website has had it listed as both.
Legislation to direct all federal government entities to refer to the holiday as George Washington’s birthday has been introduced several times, but without final action. Congress might try again.
The U.S. Senate, by the way, has a commendable tradition of its own. It has Washington’s Farewell Address read aloud on or near his birthday.
Washington, the man who wouldn’t be king, is worthy of the respect we show him - as well as other presidents - today.